South african club rugby is on the rise and there is no greater example than our oldest exponent of the amateur game: Hamiltons-Sea Point Rugby Club.
The Cape Town side may have finished seventh in the Western Cape Super A First League in 2007, but this needs to be read in context. After languishing in the lower divisions for six years, they are finally back in the big time and have grand plans to become a force in South African rugby.
Club manager Bruce Little insists the proud club are not content to be also-rans. â€˜Our major goal this year is to finish in the top three,â€™ he says. â€˜Last year we finished seventh out of 10 clubs in the league, which was admittedly not a great achievement, but it was important that we survived as the club is definitely getting better.â€™
Itâ€™s been a great turnaround for Hammies in the last three years. In 2006, they returned after struggling to qualify for the Super A1 league between 2000 and 2005. Their pre-season results are testament to their progress, and on a recent tour to Durban they beat two of the best clubs in the province. They trounced Durban Collegians 27-7 and followed this up with a 25-12 victory over College Rovers at Kingâ€™s Park.
The latter result is especially significant, because Rovers have dominated the club scene in KwaZulu-Natal in recent seasons and only missed out on a national title when they lost to Pukke in the 2006 final. This yearâ€™s encounter was played as a curtain raiser to the memorable Sharksâ€“Crusaders game, but more importantly, it doubled as a Roy Dryburgh Memorial match to honour the Springbok captain who played for both clubs. The fixture is set to become an annual affair, and so the Cape side have set the precedent yet again. Hammies was established in 1875 and is widely recognised as the oldest rugby club on the African continent.
They were there for the first Grand Challenge way back in 1883, and their most successful period was in the mid-1940s when the club entered 12 teams in various competitions. The player base dwindled when they were relegated in 2000, but in the past three years the numbers have shown a massive increase. The club also received funds from the inaugural Captains Table live broadcast and banquet in 2005, which provided a huge boost to their programme.
â€˜The club is thriving at the moment, both on and off the field,â€™ says Little. â€˜There is a real buzz in the junior division that has permeated to the higher echelons as well. We have 21 teams in all, which includes 16 junior sides, from U8s right up to U19s. We will probably have even more teams this year, as there are always new players joining the club.
â€˜The team wasnâ€™t faring too well last year, but halfway through the season we were fortunate to secure Johan Lerm as our First XV coach. Johan is the former South Western Districts coach and would have helped Peter de Villiers with the Spears if they had come into being. Needless to say, heâ€™s had a huge influence on the team. â€˜The actual club has also undergone a transformation after looking pretty derelict at one stage. We now have an Ardiâ€™s Restaurant on site, so there are always people having lunch and enjoying the atmosphere.â€™
Hammies have also been busy as far as recruiting is concerned. Newcomers to the club include former Sharks and Wildebeest No 8 Jaco Gouws, WP U20 captain Ashley Down, Rovers and KZN Amateurs lock Nicky Viljoen, WP U21 centre Mee Kaa-Eel Hartley, Boland centre Renier Bester, Border and Griffons midfielder Werner Coetzer and ex-Collegians player Ross du Toit. Wilheim â€˜Cassieâ€™ Carstens and Ryno van As of the Stormers and Bulls respectively have also been roped in to help out.
The club may not have the biggest profile in South Africa, but the structures are beginning to fall into place to ensure it flourishes for years to come. If they continue to produce the results against the big teams and nurture the numbers they have at age-group level, it isnâ€™t presumptuous to believe the oldest club in Africa will eventually become one of the best as well.